Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Citizens Advice


  Citizens Advice has given evidence on several occasions to this Committee and to several of its predecessor Committees, and we welcome the opportunity to provide our views on the Government's most recent attempt to address the enormous problems facing the UK's system of child support, through proposals contained in the White Paper, "A new system of child maintenance".

  Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales dealt with 31,000 cases involving a child support problem during 2005-06. 19,000 of these concerned non-resident parents and 12,000 parents with care.

  Citizens Advice will be responding in more detail to the White Paper, and this evidence is therefore our initial reaction to the Government's proposals.


  There must be major doubts about whether the White Paper's proposals will in practice resolve the seemingly intransigent problems afflicting child support. It is already clear that the existing CSA has undergone significant renewal and investment and will transform into the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission following legislation. The Government has also indicated that there will not be a new computer system to assess cases, and that the increased staff numbers currently at the CSA are unlikely to be continued into the future.

  Many of the people who seek advice from Citizens Advice Bureaux have been left in vulnerable situations because of the failure of the Child Support Agency over 13 years to deliver a proper service. In the past year, non-resident parents have found themselves faced with bills for huge amounts of arrears and demands for payment even when they have supplied all the information asked of them and have co-operated with the Agency. Parents with care, and consequently their children, are faced with debt and hardship because maintenance is not being paid, or worse still has not been passed on to them by the Child Support Agency.

  Citizens Advice accepted the Government's assurances prior to the 2003 reforms, which introduced a simpler formula for calculating child maintenance. Although the amount of maintenance produced using the new formula would be lower, the promise of easier assessment and quicker payment led us to accept that children would overall receive lower levels of support, but under a more efficient system. These expectations were quickly dashed.

  There will inevitably be some scepticism that yet another child support scheme will achieve the simplicity and ease of operation intended. We are concerned that the imperative now should be to ensure that child maintenance is quickly assessed for parents using the child support system, and payment arrangements are set up quickly and enforced if necessary, in order to get money flowing to families and children. This is the only way to build public support and confidence in the scheme.

  We take the view that getting the scheme to work is more important than other measures outlined in the White Paper such as the compulsory joint registration of births, which appears to be aimed more at altering behaviour and cultural attitudes towards financial responsibility for children, and less at transforming the effectiveness of child support.

  The pace of reform is disappointingly slow. Although the CSA will begin to be wound up as soon as legislation can be passed, it is unlikely that the new Commission will be fully up and running until about 2013.


  The Government proposes to revise the assessment process to use gross income figures held by HMRC, taking a fixed percentage equivalent to the current formula for number of children, with departures from this only in specified circumstances. The aim appears to be to get to a calculation of maintenance liability more quickly and easily, with fewer opportunities for the non-resident parent to dispute the assessment or to besiege the assessment with a series of changes of circumstance all of which prevent agreement and payment.

  The thrust of this approach is welcome, as a large part of the Agency's problem has been that it cannot begin to enforce a child support assessment if it is in continual dispute. It is welcome that information held for tax purposes will be used as this will provide a basis for assessment for a majority of fathers. However, the possibility that self-employed and other fathers will be able to minimise their taxable income remains serious and will need to be taken into account.


  Removing the rule that requires parents claiming income-related benefits to apply to the Child Support Agency could help remove some of the pressure placed on the system. It seems sensible to draw a conclusion that a measure which was designed to reinforce a message that parental financial responsibility exists whatever the parent's circumstances should be balanced against pragmatic considerations about whether the administrative costs are justified. The Government is proposing to continue the requirement for all parents, including those on benefit, to contribute some maintenance. These cases involve transferring £5 a week, from one parent on benefit to another. Our initial reaction is to wonder how effective it is to enforce payment of £5 or £7 from benefit income, and whether parents on benefit will pay this sum out of benefit incomes which may be as low as £54 per week.

  The new proposals also include providing a package of information and guidance services which parents will be expected to use before involving the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, C-MEC.

  We support the proposal to introduce choice and remove the requirement to cooperate from parents on benefit. We are concerned, though, that many parents on low incomes will not be in a position to agree a sustainable voluntary arrangement, because the separation is not amicable, because the former partner is no longer around, because his actual income is not transparent or agreed, and because promised payments do not materialise. It is understandable that any new system replacing the CSA will want to try to minimise its caseload in order to guarantee its own effectiveness—but this will only prove to be a viable approach if parents are genuinely able and willing to make private arrangements. The availability of good quality advice, including face-to-face advice as well as websites and other information, will be critical if the Government's strategy is to stand any chance of success.


  We believe that the CSA should now take greater responsibility for informing people currently in the child support system about their current position and about the effect any changes may have on them. Much of publicity surrounding the publication of Sir David Henshaw's report, and the Government's initial response, in July 2006 suggested that the Child Support Agency was being scrapped. This caused some people seeking advice from our bureaux to wonder whether their liability for child support had come to an end, and prompted others to seek advice about how an outstanding application for maintenance would be affected.

  Clearer information to all individual users of the CSA should have been provided so that no-one was left in any doubt about how the announcements affected their current position, and how changes in the future might alter it. Large numbers of the enquiries received by Citizens Advice Bureaux are from parents who are paying or receiving money under the child support scheme dating from before 2003, and these people, as well as everyone else, might reasonably expect to be told what the proposed reforms meant to them.

  We have concerns about the equity of introducing a "clean break" between the current child support schemes and the proposed new scheme. We are still seeing large numbers of clients who are non-resident parents who believe they would be paying a lower proportion of their income if only they could be re-assessed under rules that were supposed to come in in 2003.

  The continuing need for a "legacy" system means that there will be many parents, including those being assessed at this very moment, who will be in the previous systems for many years to come.


  The White Paper indicates that there will be a "major role" for the third sector in helping parents to make their own arrangements. Citizens Advice welcomes the opportunity to discuss with Government how the CAB service might increase its capacity to advise parents about child support. The climate is currently extremely difficult for independent advice. Funding for both Citizens Advice, the umbrella body for the CAB service, and for local Citizens Advice Bureaux, is faced with increased restrictions. The Carter review of legal aid and the Government's subsequent White Paper may, if implemented without change, result in fewer Citizens Advice Bureaux offering advice and information supported by legal aid contracts.


  Before it was published, indications were that there would be a substantially higher disregard of maintenance, and that parents with care would care on benefits would be allowed to keep much more of any child support payments received. It is disappointing that there is to be a delay of two years before the disregard is extended to people receiving child support under the "old rules" from pre-2003, and that the commitment to introduce a substantially higher disregard will not be introduced until after 2010.

  Many thousands of children could be lifted out of poverty, helping to meet a key government target, through the introduction of a partial disregard of maintenance income, as low as £30 or £40. Tax credits already include a complete disregard of child maintenance income. Citizens Advice would welcome a proper review of the costs of introducing a maintenance disregard earlier and at a much higher level than now, which took into consideration the contribution the move would make to eliminating child poverty.


  The Child Support Agency has had quite strong powers to enforce child support awards for some time, but has too frequently been unable or unwilling to use them. It has been too easy for non-resident parents to dispute the accuracy of an assessment and for delays to set in, causing a spiral of poor administration and preventing child support from being collected and paid. The Agency is already, as part of its Operational Improvement Plan, moving to obtain liability orders and using private debt collection agencies and bailiffs to collect child support debts.

  We welcome the Government's indication that it does not intend to write-off substantial amounts of the £3.5 billion owing to both the Treasury and to parents with care. We understand that some cases outstanding at the Agency, which potentially involve substantial debts, have such poor information attached to them that it would be extremely difficult for the Agency to seek to enforce collection. It is perhaps worth noting that much of the problem of outstanding debts is likely to be due to historically poor administration by the Agency.

  This is another area where it is misleading to suggest there will be a fresh start or clean break with the past, as a residuary Agency will be collecting child support debts for many years to come. Even with the renewed vigour at the CSA now with the Operational Improvement Plan, it is not clear how the Agency intends to clear the debt within a reasonable time, nor how the responsibilities for historic debts will continue with the transfer to the new Commission.

  Recent evidence from Citizens Advice Bureaux shows there are problems with the current debt collection strategy.

  In one case from October 2006, a woman had been told by the Agency in February 2006 that the £2,300 owed to her was being passed to the enforcement department. It was not until months later when the client sought advice that it transpired that no action had been taken.

  In November 2006 a client complained that he had arranged a direct debit to pay child support but the CSA was not collecting any money, and was instead threatening the use of debt collectors.

  In September 2006 a client contacted a bureau as he had a liability and a court appearance for CSA arrears—this followed over 40 different assessments, and two cheques that had been sent to the client for overpayment of child support.

  In July 2006 a client received a letter stating arrears over £1,500, after two letters saying he owed nothing.

  In October 2006 a woman came to a bureau as she was considering leaving a job and reclaiming income support. The client had debts approaching £6,000, and had been trying to get the CSA to enforce maintenance for the past three years.

  Also in October a distressed and angry client with two teenage sons called at a bureau complaining that she had never received a penny in support from her ex-husband who had consistently managed to avoid payment by leaving jobs and disputing assessments, despite involvement of bailiffs at one stage.

  Citizens Advice is continuing to work as closely as possible with the CSA to draw attention to debt collection and enforcement issues.


  We are concerned that the proposal to require both parents to register births will have consequences other than the reinforcement of parental responsibilities towards children. Registrars may not regard themselves as being in a position to enforce or even encourage joint registration and this is likely to cause practical problems. In addition, we are worried that some families might miss out on claiming child benefit as a result of the proposal. An original birth certificate must be sent to HMRC to claim child benefit, and the full birth certificate is only issued after registration.

January 2007

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